The Justice Department's Operation TIPS program, which would have enlisted tens of thousands of truckers, bus drivers and other workers as citizen spies, was doomed before it began.
The Homeland Security package approved by the Senate last week and slated to be signed by President Bush includes language explicitly prohibiting the government from implementing the controversial initiative. It was hounded by criticism from civil libertarians and targeted for elimination by key lawmakers.
The ill-fated program was first announced by Bush in March as part of a package of "Citizen Corps" initiatives aimed at getting regular Americans involved in fighting terrorism.
But as details about the program began to leak out, parties as divergent as the American Civil Liberties Union and House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) rallied to condemn the effort. They argued it would encourage citizens to snoop on one another while doing little to safeguard the nation.
The initiative quickly became a public-relations disaster for Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and other Bush administration officials. It served as a symbol for anti-terrorism policies that many Democrats and civil liberties groups considered heavy-handed.
"This program epitomized the government's insatiable appetite for surveillance of law-abiding citizens," said Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington office. "Too many people thought that the government's anti-terrorism policies wouldn't have an impact on their lives, but this showed that they would."
TIPS -- the Terrorism Information and Prevention System -- was envisioned as a "national system for reporting suspicious and potentially terrorist-related activity" involving "millions of American workers who, in the daily course of their work, are in a unique position to see potentially unusual or suspicious activity in public places," according to a description posted last summer on the Justice Department's Web site.
The ACLU and other groups, alarmed by the possibility that utility workers or delivery drivers might be enlisted to spy on customers, said the program was akin to creating "government-sanctioned Peeping Toms." Armey, a soon-to-be-retired conservative lawmaker with a decidedly libertarian bent, inserted language into the original Homeland Security bill slating the program for elimination, while Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) proposed cutting the initiative's funding.
Justice officials attempted to rescue the effort by issuing rules in August explicitly excluding any mail carriers, utility repair personnel or other workers with access to private homes. Ashcroft also told lawmakers he had scrapped plans for a centralized database to compile suspicious reports.
But the retreat did little to calm lawmakers' fears, leading to language in the final version of the Homeland Security package prohibiting "any and all activities" to implement the program.
Glenda Kendrick, a spokeswoman with the Justice Department's Office of Justice Programs, said last week that Operation TIPS "was never operational, so there's nothing to shut down."
"It never made it past the proposal stage," she said.